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Editorial: Don't reduce funding for UI

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 18, 2014 5:00 AM

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Legislation that would fund the state’s regent universities next year has stalled after the Iowa House of Representatives unexpectedly amended the bill to reduce funding growth for the University of Iowa.

The original budget proposal supported by the state Board of Regents and Gov. Terry Branstad and passed in the state Senate provided an across-the-board 4 percent budget increase for each of the regent universities and an additional $4 million for the University of Northern Iowa. The amended version passed in the House maintains the 4 percent budget increase for Iowa State University and UNI but allows for only 2 percent growth for the UI.

The slower growth would mean about $4 million in reduced funding for the UI next year, a cut that could possibly derail the UI’s ability to extend its tuition freeze for in-state students for another year, a widely supported policy.

A bipartisan committee will reconcile the funding disparity between the Senate and House plans, but we encourage the House Republicans to reinstate the funding levels proposed by the regents. The proposed reduction in funding growth for the UI would undermine the potential benefit of a tuition freeze.

The House Republicans in favor of this budget amendment say the UI has a sufficient reservoir of funds to absorb the slower growth and still offer a tuition freeze for its in-state students.

“[Lowering the increase] was the decision, because the University of Iowa can stand less of an increase the way appropriations have been,” Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, told The Daily Iowan.

Republicans propose to use money saved for a specialized program at Iowa State and a statewide education network that would help local school districts.

UI officials say that this purported cash reservoir is more-or-less a mirage.

Joseph Brennan, the UI vice president for Strategic Communication, told the DI that “the perception we have a vastly larger balance is not accurate.”

Doug True, the UI treasurer and senior vice president for Finance and Operations, said the UI’s finances look different from those of the other recent schools due to the presence of the medical center and some relatively arcane nuances of the schools’ accounting.

Even if the UI were able to fund a tuition freeze despite this reduced growth, this action by the House Republicans would still undermine a positive trend in education funding in Iowa.

Over the past few decades, the funding mechanism has fallen further and further out of whack as public investment has fallen precipitously. In Iowa, the decrease in public funding has been particularly steep. In fiscal 2001, around 64 percent of the regent-university funding came from government appropriations and 31 percent came from tuition. For fiscal 2014, 35 percent of that funding came from government appropriations and 60 percent came from tuition.

That phenomenon has shifted the burden of higher education from the state to the students — one reason for the dramatic rise in student debt over the past decade — but the fast divergence between state funding and tuition money has stabilized since fiscal 2012, and the trend could actually be reversed through a combination of state funding increases and tuition freezes.

Ultimately, maintaining robust state funding growth for the UI is about far more than the ability to extend a tuition freeze. We encourage the House Republicans to adopt the regents’ original funding.


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